When Caleb Deschanel, ASC got the call to work on the indie feature KILLER JOE, he knew it would be a challenging shoot. The recipient of last year's ASC Lifetime Achievement Award and five-time Oscar nominee for films such as THE NATURAL, THE RIGHT STUFF and THE PATRIOT, had never shot any feature on such a tight schedule. At 26 days, KILLER JOE would easily be the least time he'd ever had to shoot a film. It would also be the first movie he'd shoot digitally. But Deschanel had confidence that he and veteran director William Friedkin could make the whole thing work.
Deschanel had collaborated with Friedkin on THE HUNTED (2003) and knew the director was capable of working both quickly and decisively. Friedkin had also proven his talent for making films within similarly tight constraints on his well-reviewed 2006 indie, BUG. "What really made it work," says Deschanel, "was Billy was so well prepared. He was so opinionated, decisive, and knowledgeable about what he was doing; he didn't dwell on things. Sometimes we'd do one take and he'd want to quickly move on. The assistants would ask, 'Aren't we going to do another one?' and he'd just say, 'We got it. It's great! Why do we need to do it again?' That was an interesting way for me to work and the actors really benefited from the energy his approach brought to the set."
Director William Friedkin's latest film is a small-town thriller about a contract killing that goes awry. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC, chose to work with the ARRI ALEXA camera and ARRI/FUJINON Alura Zooms.
It didn't hurt that Deschanel responded to the script that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts wrote, based on his play of the same name. Nor that Friedkin had made some intriguing casting choices, with Matthew McConaughey playing the villainous title character and an impressive supporting cast including Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple.
It was built into the production that KILLER JOE had to be shot digitally, but initially producers encouraged the use of a different camera than the ARRI ALEXA that Deschanel would ultimately use. Deschanel borrowed an ALEXA from his friend, cinematographer Bill Bennett, ASC, and shot some tests with the camera. "I was really impressed by what it could do, especially the details you could get in low-light situations," he says. "I showed Billy the tests and he was blown away."
Deschanel is quick to point out that while the ALEXA delivered what he was hoping for on KILLER JOE, he would not call its sensor a "replacement" for the motion picture film he has used throughout an illustrious career that has so far spanned four decades. "We're at this transitional period," he says. "Regrettably, film will disappear, but at a time when film stocks are the best they've ever been - the fastest; the finest grain structure; the greatest resolution. They're wonderful and there are still certain projects I would only want to shoot on film."
However, he also enjoyed aspects of shooting digitally: "You can see what you've got immediately," he says. "The assistant can see if it's in focus. If you're worried about focus, you can check it then and not have to wait for dailies. With film, I think there would have been times we'd have been less sure about moving on without doing an extra take for safety."
Digital imaging technician Nate Borck had an important role to play on set and Deschanel found their working relationship to be a highly positive one. "He was very helpful," says the cinematographer. "I would go to him for the kind of things I'd normally talk to the lab about."
Deschanel reports being very happy with the image quality from the ALEXA, as well as its performance in low light and high contrast situations. He shot the whole film at the native EI 800 setting and notes, "The speed is enormous, and the latitude is really very good; I like the way it handles highlights. No, it's not as forgiving about highlights as film, but the way it goes to white is very pleasing."
While Deschanel did find a few issues to report during his relatively early experience with the camera, he acknowledges that they have now been addressed by ARRI. KILLER JOE was shot before on-board, magazine-style ARRIRAW recorders were available, which left him cabled to a separate recording device. This, combined with the lack of a traditional optical viewfinder (soon to appear on the ALEXA Studio model), made him occasionally feel restricted.
The cinematographer, known for a great many big, lush productions, thoroughly enjoyed his time on KILLER JOE, rising to the challenges involved in the very tight shooting schedule. "I think on big-budget movies, you arrive at maybe 75% of what you're going to do pretty quickly. Then the rest of the time is about finessing that and making it more interesting. I really wanted to see what it would be like to just go with my first instincts."
He notes that Friedkin's approach to staging shots - allowing a significant amount of action to happen within a take rather than covering a scene from countless angles and then piecing it together in the cutting room - proved very effective for this film. "Even on big movies," Deschanel says, "I've always loved designing shots that will play a whole scene based on where the camera needs to be at a certain moment - where actors walk into foreground and then we dolly back and crane up, all within a single take. I think it's frequently the most effective way to stage a scene if you do it well and on a shoot like this one it can also be a very efficient way to move things along."
Deschanel refers to such a scene in KILLER JOE, in which McConaughey's character walks through a pool hall. "We shot in this abandoned pool hall," he says. "Billy wanted Killer Joe to walk through the place and look around to be sure nobody was hiding there. I'd gone in on Saturday to watch the rehearsal and had an idea how it was going to be staged. When we arrived on Monday, we had the grips set up a dolly shot to take Matthew through the whole scene. Portions of the place are very dark and you see him come through the darkness and then into light at the back of the location and then into darkness again; there are these three characters we can just see in the darkness. The actors came in and we shot it very quickly; we didn't have the luxury of saying, 'Let's try this' or, 'let's do that.' And I really like the results. We all had to go with our first instinct and when you're operating on that level all the time it makes the process really invigorating and exciting."
Since completing KILLER JOE, Deschanel has again made use of ALEXA (this time using ARRIRAW) for a big-budget feature, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, due out next year.
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